Background: Between 1 and 2 per cent of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma patients will reveal no evidence of a primary malignancy. The management of this group poses many problems, including the morbidity associated with wide field irradiation as well as the difficulty in treatment when a primary does emerge. The aim of this study was to assess the use of fluoro-deoxy-glucose positron emission tomography (FDG-PET) imaging in patients presenting with an unknown head and neck primary and to consider its routine use in such patients.
Methods: We enrolled 25 patients into our study over a four year period. They all presented with a histologically proven, metastatic, squamous cell carcinoma of the neck for which no primary could be found despite full clinical, endoscopic and radiological evaluation with computed tomography (CT) and/or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Additionally, all the patients underwent imaging using FDG-PET. The images were interpreted by two radiologists experienced in PET imaging.
Results: A primary was identified in nine of the 25 patients (42 per cent); however, of these patients, six had false positive results and only three patients were true positives with supportive histology. In the remaining 16 patients, no abnormality was identified on CT, MRI or PET. Of these 16 patients, two eventually displayed a primary carcinoma, the other 14 patients remaining without evidence of any primary.
Conclusion: Despite the high number of positive PET scans, the actual true positive rate was 3/9 (33 per cent); conversely, the true negative rate was 14/16 (88 per cent). We conclude from this study that there is a role for FDG-PET in the patient with an unknown head and neck primary, particularly in the context of a negative PET scan.
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